Rick Moody has been writing about music as long as he has been writing, and this book provides an ample selection from that output. His anatomy of the word cool reminds us that, in the postwar 40s, it was infused with the feeling of jazz music but is now merely a synonym for neat. "On Celestial Music," which was included in Best American Essays, 2008, begins with a lament for the loss in recent music of the vulnerability expressed by Otis Redding's masterpiece, "Try a Little Tenderness;" moves on to Moody's infatuation with the ecstatic music of the Velvet Underground; and ends with an appreciation of Arvo Part and Purcell, close as they are to nature, "the music of the spheres."
Contemporary groups covered include Magnetic Fields (their love songs), Wilco (the band's and Jeff Tweedy's evolution), Danielson Famile (an evangelical rock band), The Pogues (Shane McGowan's problems with addiction), The Lounge Lizards (John Lurie's brilliance), and Meredith Monk, who once recorded a song inspired by Rick Moody's story "Boys." Always both incisive and personable, these pieces inspire us to dive as deeply into the music that enhances our lives as Moody has done -- and introduces us to wonderful sounds we may not know.
In this immensely rich collection of essays on music (all of which have been previously published), novelist Moody (The Ice Storm; The Four Fingers of Death) compares the pleasures we get from literature to the pleasures we get from hearing favorite pieces of music. "Literature, exactly like certain moments in song... wants openness, experiences of consciousness and sensation, and it wants these described in a way that is felicitous and sweet." Literary effects, he points out, are "like harmonic intervals are like metrical feet are like time signatures are like cycles per second." Moody ranges widely over different musical styles and musicians, from indie rock darlings Wilco and Jeff Tweedy and the Pogues to Pete Townshend and the Lounge Lizards. In one of the collection's most tuneful pieces, "Against Cool," Moody (much like Susan Sontag in her famous essay on camp) evocatively traces the evolution of the meaning of cool from Miles Davis through Kerouac and the beats and the 1960s up until the present day, where he suggests that "cool is spent; I suggest we begin to avoid cool now." In his essay on the Christian artists Danielson Famile, he observes that they "create something closer to the sonic equivalent of the genuine difficulty of contemporary faith, because they create music that is incredibly ungainly and awkward, as faith is ungainly and awkward, though no less fervent." Just like a good rock album, these essays were meant to be played loud.